Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

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Elena Richardson is living the perfect life in her perfect suburb of Shaker Heights. Although Elena is proud of the suburb’s idealistic beginnings, she’s thankful for its current rule-bound incarnation which fits her own obsessively programmed approach to life.

Well, it would be perfect if it weren’t for her rebellious daughter Izzy. Luckily Elena doesn’t know what her other two children are getting up to. What she does know is that her problems really began when artist and single-mother Mia moves to town with her daughter Pearl. Free-spirited Mia reminds Elena of her own choices and makes her wonder if she’s not missing out on something.

Things really come to a head when Elena’s friends adopt a Chinese baby that was left at a fire station, and Mia champions the baby’s mother who has been searching for her now that she can support her. The issue of cross-cultural adoption is an important one, and the usual arguments for who would be the baby’s best parent are brought out.

Writers are often asked where we get our ideas. A novel can start anywhere: a news article about some incident, a commitment or concern with a particular social issue, even an image of a place or person that demands you delve into what’s going on.

Before you go much further, though, you have to identify your protagonist—the person whose journey we’ll be following—and what they want deep down more than anything else. The best novels give the protagonist both an outer goal, something they are trying to accomplish, and an inner goal, some more personal need. You can make the two complimentary or oppose them, so that succeeding at one means failing at the other.

You also have to identify with what or who is keeping them from their goal: the antagonist. And there’s more: in planning a novel, writers assemble a cast of characters, people who are different from each other yet play off each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

In this story, Ng does a fabulous job of this. Her cast includes pairs of opposites, including mismatched mother-daughter duos and of course the dueling parents. There’s even a setting that enhances the strengths of one of the opposing people and the weaknesses of the other. In fact, it’s almost too carefully planned.

I felt little emotion reading this novel. I was too conscious of the chess pieces being moved around to care much about what happened. It didn’t help that the characters are so one-sided. Mia is all good—a photo of her with Pearl as a baby is even titled Virgin & Child—and Elena all bad. And unrealistic: a single mother who is making a good living as an artist and has no one in her life besides her child and the woman who sells her work? As for Elena, there may be people as strict and cold as she, but I haven’t met any. And I found at least one aspect of the ending not only unbelievable but irresponsible on the author’s part.

There’s another problem with the book. Remember what I said about starting with a protagonist and antagonist? It is unclear who these are. I’ve made it sound like Elena is the first and Mia the second, but most of the people in my book dissection group thought it was the other way around. Or the protagonist could be Pearl. Or maybe Izzy.

That said, there’s a lot of great writing in the book, plus the excellent setup and the important social issue. And many of us struggle with finding the right balance between being wild and being responsible. Most of the people in my group enjoyed the book more than I did. And it’s certainly gotten great reviews.

Have you read a novel that didn’t have a protagonist? Or had more than one?

Collected Poems, by Jane Kenyon

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In any communication there is a sender, a transference medium, and a recipient. When you whisper a secret to a friend, you are the speaker; the medium is the vibration in the air; and your friend is the recipient. For writers, our medium is our written work and our readers the recipients.

Each of these three components affects the content and quality of the communication. In the various discussion groups and critique sessions in which I’ve participated, I’ve been continually impressed by the different interpretations that readers may bring to the same poem or story based on their personal experiences and associations.

For me, reading Jane Kenyon’s poems for the first time has been like falling in love, that moment when you meet someone who seems to be your soulmate, who speaks your language, who knows what you have been through. I recently moved to a different part of the country after spending most of my life in one place. This early poem, about her move to New Hampshire, made me lose my heart to Kenyon’s work.

Here

You always belonged here.
You were theirs, certain as a rock.
I’m the one who worries
if I fit in with the furniture
and the landscape.

But I “follow too much
the devices and desires of my own heart.”

Already the curves in the road
are familiar to me, and the mountain
in all kinds of light,
treating all people the same.
And when I come over the hill,
I see the house, with its generous
and firm proportions, smoke
rising gaily from the chimney.

I feel my life start up again
like a cutting when it grows
the first pale and tentative
root hair in a glass of water.

The initial uncertainty, the gradual familiarisation, the stunning final image: all of these are true to my experience. And as Adrienne Rich so beautifully said in her poem “Planetarium”, the poet “translate(s) pulsations / into images for the relief of the body / and the reconstruction of the mind.”

This book is like a time capsule, holding Kenyon’s intense communiqués. Some read like prayers, some like a succession of images, inviting us to bring our own interpretations. She writes of love and light and herons and wasps, of depression and death and the things that survive or don’t.

Although the language seems simple, it is carefully crafted. An allusion here, a descriptive detail there, internal rhymes and repetition all work to create the music of these works.

One poem that intrigued me is “Briefly It Enters, And Briefly Speaks”. It is a list poem, almost a series of haiku, each starting with “I am”. It begins:

I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years. . . .

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper. . .

In trying to understand how this succession of images works as a coherent whole, I discovered subtle transitions: a starving girl to food on a plate to water filling a pitcher to a dry garden to a stone doorstep and inside a “heart contracted by joy. . . .”

I’m grateful to have found this treasure chest of poems that speak to me so clearly and illuminate my heart and give voice to my cares and celebrations. The speaker, the writer, may be gone but she has left us these gems to carry her voice to our ears.

Is there a poet or songwriter you’ve discovered recently whose work seems to speak to you?

Delights & Shadows: Poems, by Ted Kooser

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I hadn’t read any of Ted Kooser’s work before, though I’d certainly heard of him. I opened this early collection at a random spot and started to read rather quickly.

I wasn’t particularly impressed: the rather ordinary language didn’t exactly sing to me and the insights—while making me smile—didn’t make me gasp. However, after a few poems, a sense of well-being stole over me, almost a sense of familiarity. Perhaps I had read them before after all? Or had somehow heard this voice?

I found myself thinking of the title of Alice Munro’s 2012 story collection Dear Life. And of Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir My Beloved World. There was something in this short, seemingly simple poems that I needed. I went back and reread them more carefully.

“Tattoo” recounts a moment at a yard sale: seeing an old man whose tattoo of “a dripping dagger held in the fist / of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise”, a lingering ache “where vanity once punched him hard”—a brilliant line. Note how the images do double duty: a bruise that is the blurred blue of an old tattoo and also a lingering ache, a punch that vanity requested being also like the needles that poked ink into his skin.

There is no mockery here, only fellow-feeling as the author notes the traces of youthful arrogance. The man is still strong and has “the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt / rolled up to show us who he was,” yet we see him as an old man, “picking up / broken tools and putting them back,” the broken tools again doing double duty. And the final line takes us back to the image at the beginning, now shimmering with all that we have learned about this man and all men in just these few lines.

There is a depth of compassion in these poems and a recognition of the small moments that illuminate what it means to be human. In “At the Cancer Clinic” we see a woman being helped across a waiting room by two others, perhaps her sisters, to where a nurse waits patiently. There’s the slight chuckle at calling the nurse patient, the sympathy at the woman’s slow progress, and then the surprising ending that elevates the scene into an evocation of what is best in all of us.

Another poem I loved is “Skater”. Having myself not started skating until middle age and being quite proud that I finally managed a waltz jump—a baby jump, the easiest of all—I thrilled to this joyous description of landing it, of how that experience changes you. Adding to the joy are the bright colors and the image of her skates braiding a path on the ice, echoing her ponytail in the first line.

My friend Dave has much to say against poetry that seems like prose. When I read the last poem in the book, I thought of him and how this could be prose if written without the line breaks. However, reading it again I saw how the images of time and fading light suggest the idea of aging, even death, with calm acceptance, even perhaps with gratitude for a life well lived.

A Happy Birthday

This evening, I sat by an open window
and read till the light was gone and the book
was no more than a part of the darkness.
I could easily have switched on a lamp,
but I wanted to ride this day down into night,
to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page
with the pale gray ghost of my hand.

Have you read any of Ted Kooser’s poetry? Do you have a favorite poem of his?

Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor

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McGregor’s latest book is not for everyone. There are no car chases or spies or broken-down police detectives. There isn’t even a traditional protagonist. Reservoir 13 is the story of a village in the Peak District and its surrounding countryside. It’s a story about time, stretching over 13 years with each chapter covering a single year of the village’s life.

In quiet, exquisite prose, McGregor immerses us in this life. Holidays are celebrated, with fireworks at New Year’s and Guy Fawkes Day and a pantomime at Christmas. The agricultural life of the village goes on: haying, getting the cows in for their evening milking, looking for the sheep lost in a snowstorm. Hawthorne blooms; voles burrow under the hedges, fox cubs play outside their den.

Townspeople appear and reappear: a family who get called away from their sheep farm to rebuild bridges knocked out by storms and to do other heavy work around the village, a woman who is barely keeping her head above water caring for her autistic son, a man who visits his aging mother at Christmas and tries to avoid meeting up with his sisters, a woman who helps her elderly neighbor by walking his dog, and many more. In the course of the 13 years we follow children growing into their young adulthood, pairing off, breaking up, finding new loves.

At first I was afraid that I would have trouble following all these different characters, but in fact I had no problem keeping them straight. The author always provided small but necessary clues to remind me of who the person was and their relationship to others.

My only criticism of the book—and it is partially of the author and partly of the publisher—is that it begins with the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl. She and her parents, who are staying in the village over New Year’s, go for a walk and somehow get separated. By starting this way and by the promotional material, it sounds like it’s going to be a mystery, but it is not.

Instead, it is an examination in part—and only in part—of the effect of this event on the life of the town. As you can imagine, while the disappearance dominates the first year, over 13 years it begins to fade to an occasional memory, however much some individuals are changed by it.

The misleading description of the book as being about the girl’s disappearance sets up expectations that detract from the real pleasures to be found here. I almost came to see the disappearance as a clumsy attempt to start with a bang, in media res as we writers are advised to do. Yet nothing else here is clumsy.

I listened to this book. Some stories are better suited for audiobooks than others. I think I would have enjoyed reading it as well, but listening to it provided a sweet, almost trance-like pleasure. I started listening to it on a road trip but it was a little too quiet. However, during peaceful times at home or those sleepless hours in the middle of the night, it was exactly the right thing. I must have listened to it four times over by now. I even go back to chapters out of order now that I know the story. I never tire of it.

I love the rhythm of the year, the description of nature’s cycles, and the cycles of peoples lives: divorces, deaths, first loves. One of McGregor’s techniques to reinforce these cycles is to repeat certain phrases or sentences with slight variations. I love the image of the river that runs through town that turns over itself under the bridge and carries plumes of dirt over the weir. It reminds me of the quote from Heraclitus (as translated in my edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations) “You can’t step twice into the same river.” We see the four children we see grow into young adults trying to do just that as their own personal ritual. Another interpretation of Heraclitus’s thought

. . . is not that all things are changing so that we cannot encounter them twice, but something much more subtle and profound. It is that some things stay the same only by changing. One kind of long-lasting material reality exists by virtue of constant turnover in its constituent matter. Here constancy and change are not opposed but inextricably connected. A human body could be understood in precisely the same way, as living and continuing by virtue of constant metabolism–as Aristotle for instance later understood it. On this reading, Heraclitus believes in flux, but not as destructive of constancy; rather it is, paradoxically, a necessary condition of constancy, at least in some cases (and arguably in all).

McGregor’s remarkable story embodies this paradox. It is told in both linear and circular time—a remarkable achievement. The mystery here is not so much the disappearance of the girl, but the mystery of time, the center of this paradox of change and constancy.

This is not a book to rush through. It is a book to savor. it happens rarely, but sometimes I will read the first page of a book and think to myself: OK stop. You need to slow down and take your time and enjoy every second of reading this book. It almost never happens, but it did with this book.

Have you read a book that you just want to read over and over?

Northanger Abbey, by Val McDermid

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How could I resist this book? I have long been a Jane Austen fan. Northanger Abbey may be my least favorite of her works, but it is still an enjoyable display of Austin’s satirical wit. I admit, though, that I’ve gotten a little tired of modern adaptations of Austen’s novels. I’m not a purist, but there are many books in my to-be-read pile, and I had been feeling that enough was enough.

What intrigued me here was Val McDermid’s name. I’m also a big fan of her crime novels: meticulously plotted, believable characters, satisfyingly dark and twisty, her mysteries set me puzzling through the clues while thoroughly immersed in the human dramas. Already pondering how Austen’s story could be updated to the modern day, I was further intrigued by the addition of this fabulously dark crime writer to the mix.

In Austen’s story, naïve Catherine Moreland goes with family friends to Bath to get her feet wet in the social season there. She is led astray by her worldly new friend Isabella Thorpe who introduces her to Gothic novels. They quickly become an addiction for Catherine. Isabella’s brother John, believing Catherine to be an heiress, makes a big play for her. At the same time, Catherine has met and become attracted to quiet clergyman Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor. Thus, she finds herself pulled between the two families while coming to see the world through a Gothic lens.

Austen’s send-up of the then-new craze for Gothic novels is fun and witty, though a bit weak on plot and—at least for me—sufficiently complex characters. I could never quite believe the way Catherine is forgiven at the end of the book.

So I was curious to see how McDermid would translate this story into the modern day. There’s still plenty of naïveté to go around, even today with our sophisticated teens, and young women are still looking for the right man, even if not for the practical reasons common in Austin’s day. No problem there, but what about the rest?

McDermid cleverly sets her story in Edinburgh during Festival time, certainly as much of a social crush as Bath in Austen’s time. Her Cat Moreland is introduced to novels such as Twilight by her new friend Bella Thorpe, and Cat’s romantic fantasies begin to include sexy vampires along with the serious lawyer Henry Tilney. Communication is by text and Facebook rather than letters, though in the four years since this book was published, endlessly posting selfies to FaceBook seems to have waned among the young.

While these equivalencies are fun to enumerate, what’s amazing is the seamless way they are integrated into a story that closely follows the original, while standing just fine on its own. There’s plenty of satirical wit and lots of in-jokes too.

It’s a tour-de-force. Though I started out reading analytically, I quickly became absorbed in the story itself. I found the twists and turns quite satisfying, sufficiently different from Austen’s, while still appropriate for today, to delight me with their ingenuity.

Why would McDermid, a successful crime writer, take on such a project? Most of the writers I know like to challenge themselves. Perhaps they try a different genre or a different technique. They are constantly trying to improve their skills, no matter how successful they already are. Too, I believe that it is the project that terrifies you, the one you aren’t sure you’re up to but believe in your bones that you must write that becomes the most successful. The passion that you bring to it and the way you must dig deeply to rise to the challenge make it your best work.

Kudos to McDermid for a job well done!

Have you read an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel that you thought was particularly successful?

Open City, by Teju Cole

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Julius, a medical student from Nigeria in New York City on a psychiatry fellowship, starts walking around the city in his free time. Sometimes he has a particular destination, but more often he just sets off aimlessly. On his walks he sometimes notices other people or has brief encounters with strangers. Sometimes he visits a former professor, now old and in poor health. Mostly, though, he lets his thoughts wander, ranging over his past and future and that of the city.

There is a long tradition of mostly nonfictional accounts of walking journeys. Here, we are entirely in Julius’s mind and constrained by what he chooses to reveal. Remembered scenes are recounted through his filter. In a novel like this, without other characters—the few who appear more than once are only sketched in—or a traditional narrative with dramatised scenes, what holds a reader’s attention is the quality of those thoughts.

Julius is in his early 30s, so his thoughts have an existential tilt. Within the mosaic of the city’s streets and his life there, both of them shadowed by the events in their pasts, he thinks about death, how he has gotten to this place, and what “this place” is. He questions his choice of profession and even if psychiatry can actually help people.

He appears to be an extreme introvert. At the start of the novel he has more or less broken up with his girlfriend of a few months; they have drifted apart since she moved cross-country. He has one, unnamed friend—referred to only as “my friend”—who moves away by the end of the novel. He enjoys his new activity of occasionally visiting with his former professor, but the professor dies. He encounters a woman from home who remembers him, but he seems not to remember her. Meanwhile, he walks alone.

I was intrigued by the form of this novel and surprised that it held my attention as much as it did. Julius is an unreliable narrator, but we only have his words and perceptions to go on, so that added a level of interest. I was curious to see how Cole would bring structure to the seemingly random string of events. The structure he worked in was subtle but sound.

Also I have long been enthralled with the way the past colors the present, especially in terms of places. I loved W. G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn and knew that Cole counted Sebald as one of his big influences. However, I would have enjoyed the book more if I lived in New York City. Cole takes it for granted that we know all these places—streets, neighborhoods, buildings—and for the most part doesn’t bother describing them. Since the city is the main character, this lack left a huge emptiness in the center of the book.

The other lack I felt as I finished the book was the sense of an ending. Nothing was resolved; the questions that were raised throughout the book were not answered; Julius seemed to have achieved no insight into his own heart or integration of his divided self.

Cole’s voice, filtered through Julius, stays with me, despite some of the flaws in this novel. I will certainly read more of his work.

What account—fiction or nonfiction—of a walking journey have you read? What did you think of it?

My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor

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These days I’m on the lookout for positive stories. I can only bear an hour or two of news early in the day, leaving me time to bury my dismay and disgust with normal daily activities before darkness comes.

I came to this memoir by the Supreme Court justice—the first Hispanic and only the third woman—with some hesitation. I knew it would be a story of success, but feared it would might be saccharine and superficial.

I needn’t have worried. Sotomayor is an excellent writer. Her prose is clear and flows well, developing scenes and narrative that a reader can easily follow. I think this skill must have been honed in her written arguments, where logic and emotion must both be consistently deployed.

It can be hard to find the right tone in a memoir. You have to describe your successes in a way that doesn’t come across as bragging, not even a “humble brag”. You have to talk about the obstacles in your way without whining or succumbing to a woe-is-me mentality. You have to be open about your failures.

Sotomayor starts by describing a scene soon after her diabetes diagnosis when both of her parents argue about giving her the insulin injection she needs. Burdened by their sadness, seven-year-old Sonia decides to learn to prepare the injection and give it to herself. The scene is a good introduction, not only to the challenges facing her—illness, financial hardship, cultural difference—but also to what she calls “the native optimism and stubborn perseverance I was blessed with.”

I understand. I often say that I am lucky to have been born with the happy gene. I’m less good at perseverance, but Sotomayor shows in situation after situation how extra effort can compensate for other gifts.

What keeps this memoir of her successful rise in the legal world is two-fold. For one thing, there are plenty of stories of failures mixed in with the successes, misery among the happy times. The other is the credit she repeatedly gives to others who have helped her along the way. On the first page of the first chapter, right after her remark about optimism and perseverance, she says:

At the same time, I would never claim to be self-made—quite the contrary: at every stage of my life, I have always felt that the support I’ve drawn from those closest to me has made the decisive difference between success and failure.

It is this generous spirit, shown also towards her parents where her love for them shines through even when she describes their failures, that makes me want to cheer her on and give her more credit than she gives herself.

Another challenge of writing a memoir is deciding what time frame to choose. I think she made a wise choice to start with her independent approach to her diabetes and end with her first becoming a judge. Since becoming a judge was her dream from the beginning, it ties up the story neatly.

If you’re feeling low, I recommend this book. As she says in the preface, “People who live in difficult circumstances need to know that happy endings are possible.” Although our circumstances are dissimilar and our ideas of what makes an ending happy differ, her story lifted my own spirits.

What book have you read that brightened your day?

Playlist 2017

Songs are stories too. And sometimes poetry. In this year of much darkness and much light, I turned to true stories, songs that gave me courage, and old favorites. Many thanks to my friends for their music.

Blues Run the Game, Jackson C. Frank
Mill Towns, David Francey
Far End of Summer, David Francey
Get Behind the Mule, Tom Waits
Hold On, Tom Waits
House Where Nobody Lives, Tom Waits
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, Jacqueline Schwab
Lately, Aengus Finnan
Lass Among the Heather, Keith Murphy
C’est Aujoud’hui Grande Fete, Keith Murphy
Waves, Margie Adam
Lighthouse, Cris Williamson
Morning Glory, Terry Garthwaite
Doc Con Xa, Pham Van Ty
Le Morvandiaux Cesar’s The Sound of Sleet, Jeremiah McLane & Timothy Cummings
Bourees 3 Temps, Jeremiah McLane & Timothy Cummings
Keys Meadowhawk Mstr V2, Jeremiah McLane & Timothy Cummings
Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s, Keith Murphy
A Psalm of Life, Jacqueline Schwab
Loftiδ verδ ur skyndilega kalt, Ólafur Arnalds
ρu Ert Sólin, Ólafur Arnalds
ρu Ert Jöδin, Ólafur Arnalds

Collected Poems, by James Wright

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If memory serves, before now I had only read one poem by James Wright, his most famous one: “The Blessing”. I was drawn in and held by the gentle images, too specific to be sentimental, until the final image hit me like a fierce wind, lifting me out of this life.

The poem is a perfect example of Robert Bly’s concept of “leaping poetry” which I discussed a few weeks ago. That is no accident. I’ve come to find out that Bly was not only a friend to Wright but also a mentor.

If I liked the poem so much, why didn’t I read more of his work? All I can say is that I meant to. This 1971 collection of his poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is a good way to do that. It contains a good selection from his earlier books along with a section of new poems and one of translations from writers such as Neruda, Vallejo and Trakl.

As I read the selections from his first book, The Green Wall, I wondered if this could be the same poet. They seemed complex and overly elaborate, like something from an earlier age. However, I did appreciate his themes of estrangement from nature (symbolised in the green wall), the horrors of the modern world, and mourning.

The poems from his next book, St. Judas, went further into the hearts and minds of the poor, the criminal, the disenfranchised. Growing up in Martins Ferry, Ohio, during the Depression, he witnessed poverty and suffering first-hand; the only thing worse than a soulless factory job was having no job at all.

A bad review from the poet James Dickey led to an angry exchange of letters. However, upon reflection, Wright allowed that Dickey’s criticisms had merit. He let go of 19th century poetic traditions and, working with Bly and others, found a new, more direct style. By concentrating on images instead of stylised meter and rhyme, by using plainer language instead of rhetorical flourishes, he began writing the kind of amazing and transcendent poems that I originally fell in love with.

Wright’s next collection, The Branch Shall Not Break, was widely praised and influenced poets such as W. S. Merwin, Sylvia Plath and Galway Kinnell. I loved the poems here and in the remainder of the book. Of course, some are more successful than others and perhaps he overuses the technique of the leaping last line, but there are real gems here.

Wright dedicated one of the poems in Branch to Dickey, who became such a fan that he wrote a glowing blurb for the Collected Poems, saying:

James Wright is one of the few authentic visionary poets writing today. Unlike many others, James Wright’s visions are authentic, profound, and beautiful . . . He is a seer with astonishing compassion for human beings.

I think this episode with Dickey is a good lesson for any writer. It’s normal to feel defensive when your work is criticised. However, if Wright had continued to hold out against Dickey’s comments, he never would have experimented with changing his style. He would never have become the beloved and influential poet we know today. He never would have written the poem that lifted me out of myself and made me seek out this book.

Have you ever received a criticism that you initially thought was unfair but later recognised had merit?

Oracle Bones, by Peter Hessler

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Although several years old now, Hessler’s book offers a good introduction to a country that is rapidly changing. Presented chronologically, the stories of people and places and artifacts span the years from 1999 to 2002, when Hessler worked in China as a teacher and journalist from. As in the best of today’s narrative nonfiction, these stories are vivid vignettes that immerse the reader in the experience.

We meet an 82-year-old, tennis-playing man who “carries himself like a soldier” and stubbornly refuses to leave his family home when the developers demand it. We camp in a tower on the Great Wall during a sandstorm, hang out in cafes at night with Uighur traders, and cruise along the banks of North Korea. We talk with peasants and movie stars, archeologists and black marketeers. We learn what a ghost chariot is.

The book’s subtitle, A Journey Between China’s Past and Present, points to the aspect of the book that—next to the stories—most appealed to me. Hessler gives the reader historical context for everything, but so subtly that we can absorb the information almost without noticing it. The trick is that he gives us a snippet of history at the moment we need it and immediately returns to the story.

Also, every two or three chapters we get a section that zooms in on a particular artifact, such as the Flying Horse, discovered in 1969 in the village of Wuwei. Since archeologists were not available in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, the peasants who blundered onto the third century tomb while digging under a temple did the excavation and kept the many bronzes in their own homes until they were finally collected. The background and symbolism of the horse are teased out in a series of interviews that keep the reader’s attention engaged.

Our attention is held, too, by certain people and stories that are carried through the book, such as former students with whom Hessler stays in touch and the mystery surrounding a suicide. Also, descriptions of places come alive with a handful of details, such as this one of the Ju’er neighborhood of Beijing:

Some residents kept makeshift pigeon coops on their roofs, and they tied whistles to the birds, so that the flock sounded when it passed overhead. In the old parts of Beijing, that low-pitched hum, rising and falling as the birds soared across the sky, was the mark of a beautiful clear day. In late afternoons, the trash man pushed his cart through the hutong, blowing a whistle. The sound faded as he made his way out of the neighborhood; usually he was gone just before sunset. Nights were silent.

What sent me to this book were the lovely quotations credited to it in Hélène, by Deborah Poe, such as the epigraph from Chuang-Tzu about the use and limitation of words. My favorite is this from Chen Mengjia, a poet and scholar: “I crushed my chest and pulled out a string of songs.”

I particularly liked Hessler’s evaluation near the end of the commonalities and differences between China and the U.S. We have more in common than you might think.

Change has only accelerated for China since 2002, but this book is a good place to start if you want to understand modern China amid the fragments of its long past.

What book have you read about modern China?